by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & script that's intelligent and subtle but far from earth-shaking requires exceptional acting to make it really shine. Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond is that kind of script, but it isn't receiving that kind of production at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble (through Feb. 2).
For the 1981 movie, Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda were longtime, beloved movie stars; audiences were already disposed to like Fonda's curmudgeon. In addition, there was the real-life tension between Fonda and his daughter Jane. And Thompson opened up his script so that we could see the beauty of their summer retreat in Maine, and the fishing on the lake, and the dock where daughter Chelsea tried to do her back flips just to impress old Norman.
A stage version like Interplayers' has none of these advantages. In Fonda's role of Norman Thayer -- 80 years old and crusty, a retired professor who has a hard shell for keeping everyone else out -- J.P. O'Shaughnessy has to work so hard at delivering the zingers and earning our chuckles that there's little chance to depict the loneliness and anxiety. But On Golden Pond isn't just about an old guy who's funny; it's about an elderly fellow who's both funny and afraid. Norman is rude, racist and remote; a better production would insist on giving the darker edges of Norman's fear more exposure.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & orgetfulness, failing health, loneliness, emotional estrangement, impending death, feelings of uselessness -- in elderly people's lives, these are earthquakes. But they aren't played that way in director Maynard Villers' production.
Norman and his wife Ethel (Maria Caprile) shuffle around the inside of their lakeside summer house, puttering around and putting in time during their twilight years. The emotional stakes aren't raised to an interesting level until the third scene, when the Thayers' daughter Chelsea (Olivia Brownlee) arrives to deliver a chilly "Hello, Norman" greeting to her father and the tension becomes evident. Chelsea has brought her fianc & eacute; (director Villers) and his son from a previous marriage (Jared Alme) in tow, and each of them are allotted a scene to establish that they're not going to put up with any of Norman's manipulative bullshit.
Caprile makes nice with everyone for a couple of acts, and she's believable as the woman who sees Norman's good side. More than anyone else here, Ethel's in touch with the simple pleasures of life, and Caprile demonstrates that, though she'd appear to have more backbone if her retorts had more sting.
While the big confrontation with her father seemed brief and almost perfunctory, Brownlee was especially good at conveying her lingering resentment, staring out a window at a father who'd held her aloof for far too many years. As the teenager who bonds with old Norman during some afternoons spent fishing, Alme adds energy to an otherwise slower, older evening.
Villers the actor is effective in his one scene -- leery of rustic living and deferential to his potential father-in-law, he seems meek and conventional until a startling speech about not putting up with any more of Norman's mind games. It's delivered with quiet determination.
Villers the director, however, allows the pace to lag, fills the scene-changes with New Age-y Muzak, and oddly underemphasizes several important emotional confrontations.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are still things to admire in Thompson's script. It hints at death without depicting it directly, hints at reconciliation without getting all syrupy about it; it even suggests that octogenarians are capable of change. Over intermission, there's some real suspense about how Norman will respond to these new men in Chelsea's life. And the Chelsea/Norman face-off reflects the generational conflict so many of us have witnessed or experienced. So there's value in still producing this script -- but not as listlessly as this, not when there's a Fonda-Hepburn monument available at every video store.